Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dead Violins and Documents

Ever read a book that you can’t quite tell if it’s a put-on or not? Well, Rohan Kriwaczek’s An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2006), ISBN-10 1-58567-826-0, falls into this category for me. Rather than trying to summarize this odd little book, let me reproduce the publisher’s blurb:

“During the Protestant revolution in Europe, a new kind of music emerged, one that ultimately sought to recognize the deceased and to individuate the sense of loss and grief. But the tradition was virtually wiped out by the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 40s. Kriwaczek tells the fascinating story of this beautiful music, condemned by the Catholic Church for political as much as theological reasons, and of the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists that, yes, defends its secrets in our time. This is unquestionably one of the strangest books any publisher has ever risked publishing. Discussing the evolution of European culture, musical forms, and society’s changing attitudes to mortality and the emotional effects of music upon the soul, this is a dark and magical history.”

It is not a particularly well-written or organized book, with historical chapters followed by chapters of varying lengths on important personages in the funerary violin tradition, and including even claims by the author that he might be the object of death threats. The book is heavily illustrated, including some reproductions of portraits, book title pages, and documents, with many clearly looking like fakes. So, readers beware. If this is a parody, it is a good one.
Why mention this publication in my blog? Throughout this odd history there are references to archives. The author notes at the beginning of the volume how he meets a fellow musician who talks to him about the Guild of Funerary Violinists. “After a couple of meetings, where we discussed the Funerary Aesthetic, and the terrible events that befell the Guild, I was almost ready to leave for good, but then mention was made of the Guild’s archives,” and he begged for access to them. And he describes what he finds: “Never in the history of record-keeping has there been a more chaotic, disorganized or neglected archive than this. The conditions were atrociously damp, pages were rotting, trunks were falling apart on top of each other, objects were stacked with all the coherence of a landslide, and I realized, at that moment, that it was my mission to preserve, collate and study whatever was not beyond saving” (p. xii). Even though most experienced archivists could identify archives that might rival this one for poor condition and organization, I was nonetheless hooked in to reading the book.

Throughout the Incomplete History we find references to various documentary tragedies and recoveries. There is the account of the discovery of a trunk in the ruins of a German church, in which “water penetration and the other unsavory contents of the said tomb had caused the trunk itself to rust heavily and the contents to be largely destroyed by mould” (p. 64). The destruction of records related to the funerary violinists in Europe during the two world wars is commented on a number of times (pp. 70, 73). Another comment is made about the production of early wax cylinders of this music by a French sound archivist (p. 75). Forensic analyses of some documents are also recounted, with reference to the detection of “finger and thumbprints” demonstrating that the individual in question had “unusually thick fingers of a man of his stature, which may account for the proliferation of double stopped fifths in his music” (pp. 90-91). Irregularities in how records of Guild meetings and activities are documented also enumerated (p. 105). Perhaps the most relevant comment to quote here is Kriwaczek’s conclusion that in the Guild’s archives are a “number of particularly tantalizing documents, which, though they potentially case considerable light on the dark period of the Great Funerary Purges, must nonetheless be treated with great caution, if not skepticism, as they have so far defied verification through any other sources” (pp. 119-120). This sentiment captures perfectly how the Incomplete History needs to be read.